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A celebration of family and tradition

TRENDING | Food program reflects pressing cultural issues

Illustration by Kimberly Morris

A celebration of family and tradition
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Larry Reaves of Miami, Fla., once lived a life steeped in crime and drugs, and after giving up that life he struggled to stay clean. Eventually, though, Reaves kicked his drug habit and reconciled with his children. Now, his idea of ­success is humble but also lasting. “When I reconciled with my children,” he said, “that was the best thing—the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

But you won’t learn about Reaves from watching a TV show about crime or addiction. Instead, it was a food show—Street Food: USA on Netflix—that recently ­featured his story. Reaves makes and sells “souse,” a meaty soul food soup. He started cooking the savory dish—and taking it to co-workers—when he was trying to stay clean, and he now sells souse and other food in his modest neighborhood.

With many of us stuck at home for the past two years, the pandemic sparked a comeback of the domestic arts. Remember when we all learned to bake bread? But even before the pandemic, Americans were fascinated with food programming. Much of entertainment media glorifies rapid shifts in morality—with self-determination at the forefront—and food programming is no exception. But some food shows promote lasting and traditional values—the faithful nurturing of others every day through cooking.

The contrast between two shows, Chef’s Table and Street Food, both with some of the same producers, illustrates this cultural tension.

Netflix’s Chef’s Table, created by David Gelb, is among the food series that have grabbed our attention. Like many cooking shows, it appeals to epicurean sensibilities within our culture: beautiful and challenging food meant to elevate the palate. Chef’s Table uses lovely cinematography to profile prestigious chefs around the world, giving viewers a window into the gourmet world.

The meals are usually small yet expensive, and the point is artistic expression. But some of that glitz and glamour doesn’t shine like it used to in a post-pandemic society in which we’ve become more in tune to our need for community and belonging.

Gelb has recently teamed up with Brian McGinn for the third season of a different type of food series, Street Food: USA. Like the bread-baking comeback, the show reflects a new awareness of the importance of relationships and living “tangibly” in response to the strong presence of technology and busyness in our daily lives. The show elevates traditional ­values of family and community, and what makes the dishes special is the history and heritage of the featured cooks and vendors, rather than their edginess or ambition. Many of them learned how to cook from their ­parents or grandparents, and are continuing in multigenerational family businesses.

Linda Green in Street Food: USA

Linda Green in Street Food: USA Courtesy of Netflix

Filial responsibility is a thread throughout the show, including the necessity to provide for family.

One episode features Juan Carlos “Billy” Acosta and his family’s food truck, Carnitas El Momo, in Los Angeles. Acosta stepped up to help provide for his family in the aftermath of his sister’s death, taking over the family business with his parents’ blessing. In another episode, Linda Green, the “YaKaMein Lady” in New Orleans, says, “It’s very important that I stay on my path because I’m the head of my family. And if the head die, everything die.”

Still another episode features Chef Tami Treadwell of Harlem Seafood Soul in New York. She cooks shrimp and grits, and other comfort food, exuding kindness and warmth to customers. She describes herself in terms of family relationships—as a mother and sister, putting love for the customer into her cooking. Treadwell radiates hospitality, treating each customer as family in her affectionate chatter as she hands them ­generous helpings of her comfort food.

It’s very important that I stay on my path because I’m the head of my family. And if the head die, everything die.

The values of love and simplicity in the show suggest that God’s design for family shines even in a fallen world. These people demonstrate that loving properly isn’t just sentiment and feeling, but action, accomplishing the sense of community they value. Their way is through food, which uniquely materializes love so that the labor involved comforts hearts while also meeting a real physical need.

In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, God uses bread and wine as a means of grace for His people. In A Meal With Jesus, author and pastor Tim Chester discusses how food itself is important in Jesus’—and our—ministry, not just as an analogy: “Running through Luke’s Gospel is the message that the last day will involve a radical reversal in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meals of Jesus picture that day, as he welcomes the marginal and confronts the self-righteous and the self-reliant.”

In Street Food: USA, the marginal, or at least the ordinary neighborhood folk, are invited and celebrated. The stories remind audiences that food—and the acts of cooking and partaking—brings communities together and offers tangible provision for family and friends. For Christians, we can find reminders of Christ’s love, and how He would have us love others, even in cooking shows.

Anna Sylvestre

Anna is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute.


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